Shaped by our thoughts--a new task to assess spontaneous cognition and its associated neural correlates in the default network.
Self-generated cognition, or mind wandering, refers to the quintessentially human tendency to withdraw from the immediate external environment and engage in internally driven mentation. This thought activity is suggested to be underpinned by a distributed set of regions in the brain, referred to as the default network. To date, experimental assessment of mind wandering has typically taken place during performance of a concurrent attention-demanding task. The attentional demands of concurrent tasks can influence the emergence of mind wandering, and their application to clinical disorders with reduced cognitive resources is limited. Furthermore, few paradigms have investigated the phenomenological content of mind wandering episodes. Here, we present data from a novel thought sampling task that measures both the frequency and qualitative content of mind wandering, in the absence of a concurrent task to reduce cognitive demand. The task was validated in a non-pathological cohort of 31 older controls and resting-state functional connectivity analyses in a subset of participants (n=18) was conducted to explore the neural bases of mind wandering. Overall, instances of mind wandering were found to occur in 37% of experimental trials. Resting state functional connectivity analyses confirmed that mind wandering frequency was associated with regional patterns of both increased and decreased default network connectivity, namely in the temporal lobe, posterior cingulate cortex and dorsal medial prefrontal cortex. Our findings demonstrate that the novel task provides a context of low cognitive demand, which is conducive to mind wandering. Furthermore, performance on the task is associated with specific patterns of functional connectivity in the default network. Together, this new paradigm offers an important avenue to investigate the frequency and content of mind wandering in the context of low cognitive demands, and has significant potential to be applied in clinical conditions with reduced cognitive resources.